Race Day Strategy

Over my final four weeks of training for marathon #2 I’m sharing some thoughts on the marathon. In week one I wrote about What it Takes to Train for a Marathon. I explored the time, commitment, and genuine love for distance running that is needed to successfully complete a marathon training cycle. Last week I started to experience Taper Madness. This week I am talking race day strategy.


Just 9 more days until I hit the pavement for my second marathon. I have been thinking a lot about race day strategies not only for my own race, but just in general. There are so many ways to go about planning for race day. Positive splits, even splits, negative splits, running with a pace group, not using a watch, etc. For my first marathon last year I ended up with a negative split. While the Columbus course is a really great course for a negative split, this was a complete fluke and not intentional. I had planned to run my first few miles slightly slower than goal pace, I wasn’t counting on maintaining a quicker pace for the final 10K. I had no idea what to suspect and was just going to run my best.

This year Strava has a Back Half Challenge rewarding marathoners that successfully complete a negative split in their marathon with a free pair of New Balance shoes. I have mixed feelings about this. I think it’s great to encourage runners to run a smart race and start slowly, but I think it’s more important to encourage runners to run their best race. “But wouldn’t a negative split be their best race?” In my opinion, not necessarily. When done correctly, negative splits are difficult. There is a level of understanding that needs to be there to determine how slowly one can start without just jogging along and how quick of a pace they can move to in the later parts of the race and maintain. However, a negative split can also be done by running too easy for the majority of the race and then picking up the pace for the last few miles. This is completely achievable (think: fast-finish training runs), but doesn’t mean a runner has run their best race and isn’t really the meaning of a negative split. 18 weeks of training to run too slowly during the race just so a runner can say they ran a negative split isn’t running a great race in my opinion. Sometimes runners just have a good, fast race and a negative split happens.

A huge factor when planning a race day strategy is the course. As I mentioned, Columbus is a great course for a negative split. The last 10K is net downhill which makes the back half faster than the front half. This is not all courses and honestly not most courses. Some courses actually have a faster front half than back half. Trying to negative split on some courses just doesn’t make sense and could actually be a poor race strategy. There are many courses that are fairly even and may actually be better for more even splits.

Regardless of the course, some runners find they do better running even splits. They feel more controlled and find it easier to run a consistent pace over a longer distance. Often times pacers will run even splits so if a runner chooses to go with a pace group this may be the only option. Again, this can be dependent on the course and I would encourage anyone running with a pacer to talk to them ahead of time and find out their strategy. If a runner is used to running even splits and the pacer is gunning for a negative split, it may be wiser for that runner to just run solo and stick to even splits.

Now let’s talk positive splits. It’s a freaking marathon – a positive split isn’t bad. A positive split during a marathon seems pretty normal to me. I’ve said it over and over, no one can predict what will happen in the second half of the marathon. A runner preparing for Columbus posted on Instagram last week about his goal and I tried to encourage him by reminding him that the last 10K is technically “easier” than the rest of the race. He responded with, “Yeah but that last 10K could be on a moving sidewalk and it would still be hard.” This is 100% accurate. Marathons are supposed to be hard, that’s why it’s a marathon. Sometimes, no matter how much fitness or mental toughness one possesses, he can’t physically make his legs move any faster at the end of a race. A runner may run at the same effort level, but be going slower. This is what makes a marathon so difficult and so courageous at the same time – having the will to continue pushing even though your body is slowing down isn’t a drive had by everyone.

So when planning a race strategy, mine is always based on what will help me run my best race. What that includes is dependent on my goal, the course, and the weather. Even though it’s still way too early to really know race-day weather, temperatures right now are looking a little warmer for race day that desired, but not horrible. I still think I can achieve my goal, but the reality is that achieving that goal may not go according to plan and I may have to adapt my strategy on the fly. This race is going to be hard. I’m pushing myself to run fast and running a negative split is the furthest thing from my mind. I do plan to start a little slower than goal pace to get warmed up, but I am being realistic that I am going to be tired in the second half and will need some serious willpower to keep myself pushing forward. Even with perfect conditions, I do expect to be working hard in the second half.

“All the training doesn’t make the race easy, it prepares you to fight well when it gets hard. It will be tough, but so are you!” – Des Linden

Don’t let another runner, social network, blog network, friend, family member, etc. determine what race day success is for you. Figure out the strategy that will help you go into the race feeling confident and comfortable. It may be not be a negative split, but if it means you run your best race then that doesn’t really matter.

What do you find works best for you? Negative splits? Positive Splits? Even Splits? Do you run with a pacer?


3 thoughts on “Race Day Strategy

  1. Jennifer @ Dashing in Style

    I followed your link to your first marathon recap, and it gave me chills reading it. If I could have an experience like that, I’d be ecstatic!

    This post reminded me of the differences in runners, specifically my running buddy & me. I do really well with sticking to a specific pace range, where she runs by effort & doesn’t wear a watch. I naturally run negative splits no matter the course, where she prefers to run even splits. For this race my coach sent me a pace chart that shows even effort and negative split. I was worried about going too slowly in the first half, so she wanted to show me how slow I could go in the first half and how much I’d need to speed up in the second half. It put my mind at ease because it seems totally doable (on paper!) but my running friend said it would really stress her out to run at all those different paces. So I agree that race strategy is really an individual thing tailored to how each of us run best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That first marathon experience is what has me so freaked out for marathon number 2. It can’t possibly go as picture perfect as that, eek! My good friend tends to do better running even splits as well, but I think that negative splits make me feel a little more at ease. Like I don’t have to run such a fast pace for as long as the race distance. Of course that means I have to run a little faster in the second half, but for some reason mentally it just works better for me!


  2. Pingback: The Marathon – Final Race Prep Thoughts – everythingswaiting

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